Formula for great pucks
<img class="imgl" alt="Anatoly Varivonchik — the first head coach" src="http://www.belarus-magazine.by/belen/data/upimages/2009/0001-009-413.jpg">[b]Origins of modern Belarusian hockey[/b]<br />In May, for the first time, Minsk will host the World Ice Hockey Championship. It is a significant event for Belarus, being the first major international sports tournament for our country. Of course, we fully deserve the honour, having not only developed our hockey status but having built a great many facilities. Just 15 years ago, Belarus had four ice rinks: the number is now almost 20. Stadiums are under construction in large cities and smaller towns, bringing the sport to the wider population.
In May, for the first time, Minsk will host the World Ice Hockey Championship. It is a significant event for Belarus, being the first major international sports tournament for our country. Of course, we fully deserve the honour, having not only developed our hockey status but having built a great many facilities. Just 15 years ago, Belarus had four ice rinks: the number is now almost 20. Stadiums are under construction in large cities and smaller towns, bringing the sport to the wider population.
We shouldn’t forget our Belarusian hockey roots, which have their foundations in Minsk, Novopolotsk and Grodno. The latter picked up the baton from the capital about 25 years ago, establishing the second professional team, headed by coach Anatoly Varivonchik. He recollects, “I played for Minsk Torpedo and Dinamo for almost 20 years and, on retiring, began coaching Dinamo. I wasn’t there for long, being offered the position of head coach for newly formed Progress-SHVSM in 1988: a merger between Minsk SKIF-SHVSM and Grodno SHVSM. While the young players in the capital might have enjoyed a single season in the lowest USSR league, those from Grodno had no such experience. However, finances were found for the team, which received sponsorship from local Progress Farm. The head of the farm, Alexander Dubko, took charge of the squad, while his right hand was former SHVSM coach Leonid Kotok. Unfortunately, they are no longer alive today; they’d have been proud to see Minsk hosting the World Championship.”
Progress-SHVSM got off to a flying start, jumping from being an unknown novice team in the second league of the USSR Championship to the first. The team lacked its own ice rink, so had to host home matches in Minsk or in Lithuanian Elektrėnai. However, long-distance flights only rallied the young, ambitious players, and the Grodno squad was soon playing Leningrad SKA, Omsk Avangard, Magnitogorsk Metallurg, Novosibirsk Sibir and other legends of the KHL (second only to the transoceanic NHL).
In 1991, Progress-SHVSM enjoyed a successful season in the first league, aiming to enter the elite Soviet division. They defeated Minsk Dinamo sensationally away, with a score of 4:2; it’s said that ardent fans are yet to forgive Grodno even today…
The Soviet Union collapsed, and the championship with it, inspiring Progress-SHVSM to be renamed as Neman. It was obliged to play in the lowest league of the open championship of Russia for four years, before the squad began driving forward Belarusian ice hockey. Then, in 1998, 1999 and 2001, the team won gold medals, led by head coach Anatoly Varivonchik. He tells us, “The Ice Palace in Grodno was constructed only at the end of 1991, so the children’s school couldn’t train players for a long time. Minsk helped and I’m proud to say that we didn’t lose our talent. On the contrary, they received good training, fulfilled their potential and reached new sporting heights.”
Mr. Varivonchik continues, “Alexander Andrievsky, Oleg Khmyl, Oleg Romanov, Oleg Antonenko, Vadim Bekbulatov, Sergey Shitkovsky, Vladimir Svito, Vladimir Kopat and other future players of the national team developed their sports skills with us. That first team, in 1988, featured Leonid Fatikov and Alexander Alekseev — who became real professionals, protecting the honour of the country in the national team for many years. Ruslan Salei, the best hockey player Belarus has ever seen, began with our Neman team. I met him at the skating rink in Gorky Park, aged 18; he’d just failed to qualify for Dinamo so I invited him to move to Grodno. He agreed, spending half a season with us, and really showing us his talent. Dinamo realised his potential and took him on, which later led to his outstanding career in the NHL, playing almost a thousand matches in the world’s top league.”
In 1997, Mr. Varivonchik began heading the national team of Belarus. The team was already strong, but lacked consistency. Its first serious test under its new coach was the Olympic qualifying tournament. It passed with flying colours, making it the country’s first entry to the Games, in 1998, in Japanese Nagano. The event was dramatic, starting with a breath-taking victory over the French, with a score of 4:0. Then, our team smashed the Germans 8:2. This was followed by a draw against Japan and our squad managed to reach the final eight, before succumbing to defeat.
1998 also saw our national team reach the final eight at the World Championship in Switzerland. It was an achievement only surpassed eight years later, when the squad finished in 6th place at the World Championship in Riga. By then, the national team was under the direction of another trainer: Canadian Glen Hanlon (the current coach, recently returned). Anatoly Varivonchik kept his position as head coach of the national squad for five years and retains the record for coaching the most matches with them.
During his 25 years of work in Grodno, Mr. Varivonchik only left the city for two years, to work in Gomel. He notes, “I took a strong liking to Grodno and those 16 years as head coach flew by. It was a thrilling job but I now have a new mission: managing the club. We share one purpose: to repeat last year’s achievement and become champions of Belarus for the fifth time. We have strong foundations, with an effective school for youngsters. Most of our players come from there and some of our students play for Minsk Dinamo: Artur Gavrus, Alexander Pavlovich, and goalkeeper Vitaly Koval. They, alongside some other Grodno hockey players (past and present) are members of the national team of Belarus, playing at the World Championship in Minsk this May.”
Anatoly’s son, Igor, plays for Neman-2 and is already part of the junior national team. His father notes, “At home, my wife and I constantly analyse his games: sometimes together, sometimes all three of us. We debate a great deal and, sometimes, even argue.”
By Iosif Popko